By Costas Pitas
LONDON (Reuters) – Uber [UBER.UL] heads to a British court on Tuesday to defend its business model of treating drivers as self-employed, entitling them to few rights in law, in the latest stage of a long-running battle at the taxi app.
The Silicon Valley-based company, which could be valued at $120 billion (£93.7 billion) in a forthcoming flotation, has faced legal action, protests, regulator crackdowns and licence losses around the world as it challenges existing competitors and rapidly expands.
In 2016, two British drivers successfully argued at a tribunal that Uber exerted significant control over them to provide an on-demand taxi service and that they should be given workers’ rights, which include receiving the minimum wage.
An employment appeal tribunal upheld that decision last year prompting Uber to go to the Court of Appeal, with a two-day hearing due to begin on Tuesday.
Unions argue that the gig economy – where people often work for various employers at the same time without fixed contracts – is exploitative, whilst Uber says its drivers enjoy the terms of their work and on average earn much more than the minimum wage.
“We will do everything that we can to preserve that flexibility and preserve that power for our driver partners because every single one that I’ve talked to says that they absolutely treasure it,” CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said last week in London.
In Britain, the self-employed are entitled to only basic protections such as health and safety but workers receive benefits such as the minimum wage, paid holidays and rest breaks. Uber has introduced a number of benefits for drivers.
Co-claimant in the case and chair of the drivers’ branch of The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain James Farrar criticised the taxi app for continuing to oppose the original tribunal decision.
“It’s two years since we beat Uber at the Employment Tribunal, yet minicab drivers all over the UK are still waiting for justice, while Uber exhausts endless appeals,” he said.
Rights at firms such as Uber, fellow taxi service Addison Lee and food courier Deliveroo have risen up the political agenda in Britain as more people work for companies without fixed hours or a guaranteed income.
A march backed by several trade unions and involving cleaners, receptionists and security officers is due to take place on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Theresa May launched a review into working practices but her administration has yet to provide a response after a consultation closed over the summer.
The government will reply in “due course,” a business ministry spokeswoman said.
(Editing by Stephen Addison)